5 Essential Tips for Collecting Pop Art
First coined in Britain in the 1950s, Pop art emerged in the United States in the early 1960s and took the art world by storm. A reflection, critique, and celebration of the era’s popular culture, mass media, and growing consumerism, the movement was a divergence from the physicality and sincerity of the Abstract Expressionist movement that dominated the post-war 1940s and ’50s. Pop artists opted for widely recognizable imagery sourced from cartoons, advertisements, product packaging, television, and Hollywood films.
The popularity of the movement at the time was staggering, and remains so today. Andy Warhol—an artist synonymous with Pop art—succinctly summarized the widespread appeal of the movement when he famously said that Pop is simply “about liking things.” By speaking to a mass audience previously indifferent to art’s elitist traditions and employing commercial methods of reproduction like screen printing, Pop made art—and collecting art—a far more accessible venture.
Today, of course, Pop artworks are some of the most recognizable and valuable lots at auction, with Warhol’s Silver Car Crash (Double Disaster) (1963) selling for a record-setting $105 million at Sotheby’s in 2013 and Roy Lichtenstein’s Nude with Joyous Painting (1994) selling for $46.2 million at Christie’s New York this past July. While these price points are daunting, the movement’s roots in mass production and its profound influence on contemporary artists working today have made Pop art’s accessibility for new collectors enduring. “The great thing about Pop art,” said Kay Richards, founder of Los Angeles gallery IKON Ltd., is that “there are really great examples available at a variety of price levels.”
To help you navigate the Pop art market, we spoke to a few experts on the subject.
Do your research
Whether your desire to collect Pop art is fueled by the prospect of a stable investment or by an enthusiasm for the vibrant aesthetic appeal of the work, it’s always a good idea to familiarize yourself with the central tenets and key players of the movement. This will offer insights into the thematic elements present in a work, its historical importance, and the growth potential of its value over time. Most importantly, doing your research will help you better understand what aspects of the movement specifically appeal to you.
“When expanding your collection, consider the story of Pop art,” advised Jay Rutland, creative director of London’s Maddox Gallery. He suggested that collectors interested in developing a collection in this genre begin with the movement’s notable names, citing Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Roy Lichtenstein, Claes Oldenburg, and Andy Warhol. The influence and staying power of these artists and others at the helm of Pop art can be traced throughout the past five decades into today’s contemporary art and “Neo-Pop” movements. Rutland explained that this methodical approach will help curate a “focused collection that encompasses both the traditional and contemporary.”
Understand the historical context of the work
One of the things that makes Pop art so alluring is the way in which it reflects specific cultural moments in history. Understanding these references can better inform your acquisition and make collecting a more fulfilling venture. Rachael White Young, a specialist in post-war and contemporary art at Christie’s, posited that “a smart collector isn’t just drawn to a work of art visually, they’re also able to look at how the artwork and its creator fit into the larger zeitgeist.”
“When we look at these micro-moments of Pop art, the underlying theme is a reflection of the relevant popular culture,” she said, explaining how these artists are linked with their specific time and place. “In the 1960s, it was Coca-Cola and Jackie Kennedy for Warhol and Ben-Day dots and comic books for Roy Lichtenstein; in the 1980s, it was an embrace and elevation of the street art culture with Keith Haring; with Takashi Murakami, it’s a very regional focus with the anime and manga craze of Japanese ‘flat art’ aesthetics.”
This consideration extends to contemporary artists working in the Pop tradition as well. “Whereas the ‘popular culture’ of the 1960s was focused primarily around consumerism and the everyday object, today’s ‘popular culture’ is much more expansive,” said White Young. “Topics like race and diversity and environmental concerns—which are very much part of our everyday life in 2021—are folded into the dialogue.” She pointed to artists Nina Chanel Abney, whose work weaves together pop culture imagery with comments on race relations, politics, and the overstimulation of the digital age, and Derrick Adams, whose work examines the role of mass media, celebrity, and popular culture in contemporary life.
Start by collecting editioned works
For collectors who are just starting out, prints, multiples, drawings, and figurine toys are an accessible way to break into the market without breaking the bank. Describing his own path into collecting art, John Russo, CEO of Maddox Gallery, explained how his journey began with buying limited-edition prints. “This is something I still do today, and it’s a route that I would encourage any new collector to take when looking to break into the market,” he said. Russo has since expanded his collection to include original works, collectibles, and reproductions, and noted that his purchase decisions have always centered around his connection to the work. “It’s all very well collecting art as an asset, but collecting art that will both appreciate in value and bring you joy is another thing entirely.”
Rhonda Long-Sharp, owner of Long-Sharp Gallery in Indianapolis, spoke to the wide range of price points among works by notable Pop artists. “Without a winning lottery ticket, it will be difficult for most new collectors to acquire one of Warhol’s iconic original Marilyn or Moonwalk prints,” she said. “But some of his signed editioned prints can be had in the range of $5,000 to $15,000 if one is discerning and patient.”
For those interested in collecting works by contemporary Pop artists, Rutland pointed to multiples by artists such as KAWS as an approachable entry point for new collectors. While works by KAWS have seen a massive growth in market value, the artist’s three-dimensional figurines can still be purchased for less than $1,000.
Confirm a work’s authenticity and examine condition
When acquiring works by any high-value artist, it’s important to determine the authenticity of the work and obtain documentation. Because of their replicable nature, this is particularly crucial for Pop art works. Long-Sharp advised that “the most desirable works on paper will have a solid provenance, be authenticated by the artist’s foundation or estate, and be in the catalogue raisonné for the artist’s works on paper (if one exists).” She also explained that a work should have anecdotal information such as documented exhibition history, letters, and gallery stamps. Purchasing a work from a gallery or auction house is a sound way to ensure the authenticity of the work, as the institution is “willing to put its warranty and reputation behind it,” she said.
On the topic of a work’s condition, Long-Sharp noted that it’s really up to each individual collector to decide how important an artwork’s wear and tear is to their collection. This is particularly prudent advice when purchasing editions, where the price of any given work can vary dramatically based on its state. Richards spoke to this consideration as well, and explained that prints and multiples tend to fall into two categories—those that “have been put away or never framed, which represent a tremendous opportunity,” and those that “have been well-loved and traded a few times either privately or at auction,” which can be a value concern. She recommended getting thorough condition reports where possible.
Explore emerging artists working in the Pop art tradition
Speaking to Pop art’s lasting impact, Christie’s White Young explained that “there is a timelessness to Pop art, at least in its core function: a representation of popular culture, of everyday life. Today’s artists might still hold onto that tenet, but they present it in a more relevant light.” She pointed to Lucy Sparrow’s 2017 soft-sculpture supermarket installation 8 ‘Till Late, remarking, “I immediately thought of Claes Oldenburg’s The Store (1961)…but instead of ice cream sundaes, you have Goldfish and Sour Patch Kids. Same concept entirely, but revitalizing it for the current generation.”
Additionally, White Young noted underground and largely overlooked Pop figures like Black Mountain College graduate Ray Johnson. According to White Young, Johnson’s collages of James Dean and Lucky Strike cigarettes “certainly pre-figured those of his better known contemporaries” and recommends him as one to watch.
“Pop art will forever be a staple at contemporary art fairs, because it will always have an innate relevance and appeal to a broad spectrum of society,” said Russo of Maddox Gallery. He notes that the oversaturation of Pop works can sometimes be overwhelming for a collector, and suggested making an appointment with an art advisor when looking to purchase at an art fair to help make an informed decision.
In terms of artists to keep an eye on, Russo mentioned Jerkface, Julie Curtiss, Justin Bower, and Nicolas Party. “They’re all creating incredible work and will undoubtedly be the next must-haves for any avid collector of contemporary Pop art,” he said.